The impacts of drought, HIV/AIDS and a weak economy have combined to undermine already vulnerable households in Malawi's rural areas.
James Morris, the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Humanitarian Needs in Southern Africa, highlighted this 'triple threat' on a recent visit to the region that included a stop in Malawi, where he called for a renewed international response to the crisis.
Chikwawa district, south of Malawi's commercial capital, Blantyre, is one of the areas affected by the prolonged dry spell that has decimated the maize crop, a staple food.
The impact of HIV/AIDS has meant that many children in the district are forced to fend for themselves, at a time when hunger threatens large parts of the country.
Penelope Howarth, head of the World Food Programme (WFP) suboffice in Blantyre, told IRIN that many villages in the district had "harvested next to nothing" this year, and people were surviving on wild vegetation and seeking out ganyu (piece work) across the border in Mozambique.
"Others are diving for water lilies - the danger is that there are a lot of crocodiles in the river," she added. Sam Sheku, a WFP field liaison officer, said people had to dive to the riverbed to get the edible roots of the lilies, and Howarth noted that "six members of a family died recently because they ate the wrong kind of lily".
Sheku said, "Normally, this time of year they would have harvested [enough to eat] and would be planting winter maize, but there's no residual moisture in the soil [for planting], as there has been no rain."
The main winter cropping areas are along the Shire river and Lake Malawi.
Howarth remarked that as a result of the poor harvest, "the maize price is quite high - the [state cereal company] ADMARC price per kg is Kwacha 17, but the problem is that in many areas they [ADMARC] don't sell more than 5 kg per person. On the market the price of maize is Kwacha 21 per kg - this time last year the price was Kwacha 12 - so that's 75 percent higher than the previous year."
She added that "even those with money have not been able to buy sufficient maize on the markets", as traders were "selling small amounts of maize at a time", and pointed out that "two kilograms of maize will last about a day for the average family".
The Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) report noted that if the maize price kept pace with inflation at the average rate for 2002-2004, some 4.2 million people would be at risk.
If inflation accelerated (as evidenced by the 75 percent rise in the current maize price) the situation could worsen. The worst-case scenario, depending on the speed and price of imports, could see 4.6 million people at risk in Malawi this year.
The MVAC said that with a production shortfall of over 600,000 mt, a strategic grain reserve of 15,000 mt and imports (including informal cross-border trade) of 104,000 mt, the country could face an overall cereal shortfall of 482,000 mt.
Food aid of 271,000 mt could bring this down to 210,000 mt, and the government is expected to allocate a substantial amount to food imports when it presents the national budget in parliament this month.
Apart from the prolonged dry spell, the MVAC also identified other problems affecting crop production, such as inadequate inputs - both in terms of availability and timing of distribution.
The country's weak macroeconomic situation, with low foreign reserves and potentially reduced export earnings from cash crops, coupled with fairly high inflation and interest rates, were other key factors leading to shortfalls in food, the MVAC found.
"The [Malawi] kwacha is devaluing against the Mozambique metical [that country has become a source of both formal and informal maize imports for Malawi]; the foreign exchange reserves are getting run down; tobacco sales came on line late because of a dispute over the price - yields were low because of the reliance on rain and problems with fertiliser ... even cotton was affected," Howarth noted.
The instability of the Kwacha was also affecting the maize price, she added. This, combined with the dry spell, the late arrival of the government's Targeted Inputs Programme (TIP) starter-packs for smallholder farmers, meant most rural families had little hope of a good harvest.
"By the time the fertiliser arrived, most people had already planted," Howarth remarked. "Basically, the shortage of inputs and the dry spell exacerbated the problem - ultimately, there's a huge reliance on maize - although there's a bit of diversification in the south, with people growing millet and sorghum, and rain-fed agriculture."
The erratic weather over the past few years was also causing the yearly degradation of soil quality: "there's a shortage of arable land", Howarth said.
WFP has been conducting school-feeding and targeted food aid distributions to vulnerable groups in parts of Malawi still trying to recover from previous dry spells.
In Chikwawa district the agency has been distributing sorghum to the chronically ill, but there is resistance to the commodity, as most Malawians prefer their traditional staple food - maize.
"When we do food-for-work activities, we find some resistance [to sorghum as a ration]," Howarth commented. To counter this, the agency has embarked on a sensitisation process that includes detailing the nutritional value of sorghum and providing recipes to beneficiary communities.
Attempts have also been made to get people to diversify their crops by planting sorghum or cassava "so they have something to put into their stomachs", should the rains fail and maize crops whither.
Food-for-work activities have focused on raising drought resistance by constructing irrigation canals, and building community assets by means of road rehabilitation and other public works.
While these programmes aim to assist the country's recovery from poor harvests in the past, a new food crisis looms.
"In some areas people have harvested enough to last them through to October or November, but other areas, like Chikwawa and Nsange, have been very badly hit by the dry spell - you go into the villages and you can see the effects already - chronic malnutrition and stunting - you have a family of 10 eating one meal a day," Howarth commented.
Although its recovery programme was still underfunded, the WFP would have to respond to the additional demands of the spreading food shortage.
Maize prices rose sharply in May, just after the harvest, when people normally relied on their own crops, and many poor rural Malawians have found the ability to cope being relentlessly eroded.
In Thauzeni village in Chikwawa district, the recent dry spell was a setback for the 62 households that had managed to recover during the past year from an earlier drought.
In 2001/02 the village suffered widespread crop failures, but a combination of good weather and the timely distribution of inputs allowed the village to recover over subsequent seasons.
Chief Harry Thauzeni told IRIN that the 2001/02 harvest was "disastrous ... because of the drought" but, fortunately, the village received food aid from WFP; the 2002/03 harvest saw a slight improvement, and in 2003/04 the village was able to harvest enough to keep itself going, with just 24 households receiving aid through food-for-work activities.
However, the 2004/05 agricultural season has been "the worst, as since October last year there's been no rains in this area," Thauzeni said.
"We delayed planting, and planted our seed in November; we had fertiliser from the TIP programme but there've been no rains, and we have harvested nothing - as you can see, the place is dry," he said, pointing to the baked earth where the village crops usually grow.
Life for the 10 child-headed households and 18 female-headed households in the village has become much harder. "Some people have gone to Mozambique, just two kilometres away, to work and they are sometimes paid in kind, in maize; some make charcoal or collect firewood for sale," Thauzeni said.
Desperate households have begun to sell livestock, such as pigs and poultry, but the prices have gone down, as more people are desperate to sell and there are fewer buyers.
In one female-headed household in Thauzeni village, Maria Saba, who estimated her age at about 23, and her mother, Esnath, care for Maria's three children as well as her younger sister Nondo's two young kids. "Both the fathers of the children have died," Maria said.
With five children to feed, the women rely on ganyu to buy maize for the household, but with a poor harvest, ganyu has been hard to find and they have resorted to foraging for edible wild vegetation.
Maria said her sister Nondo had gone to find ganyu in Mozambique more than a month ago, but the family has not seen or heard from her since and were concerned.
"Sometimes we get attacked by Mozambicans and the maize [we are paid with] gets stolen. They are saying Malawians must not come to Mozambique and look for ganyu - we don't know why they are saying that," Maria said.
The women tried to plant this season "but our maize dried up", Maria said. "The wild leaves we eat are bitter and sometimes they make us vomit, but we only have enough maize meal to last a day," Maria said, so the family has reduced its intake to one meal a day.
A few metres from Maria's home, two young girls, aged 10 and 11, and their 18-year-old brother have been forced to fend for themselves. Zione, the youngest, and her sister, Marianna, have relied on whatever income their brother, Masauko, is able to earn from selling firewood and thatching for homes.
"We are here like this because our parents died last year - they died from a long illness," said Masauko.
Although WFP conducts a school-feeding programme in the area, in a bizarre set of circumstances the girls have been denied what is likely to be their only guaranteed meal of the day: they were expelled because they do not have uniforms, which they have been unable to afford since their parents passed away.
The sisters have been denied both access to education and food aid through the implementation of a policy the government scrapped long ago, noted WFP food aid monitor Chance Mwalubunju, who promised to take the matter up with the head teacher at their school.
"It's against the policy of the government - the government's policy is for free universal primary education," he said.
Sheku noted that during the between-harvest lean season, pupils in food-deficit areas were given take-home rations besides the food they ate at school.
Masauko told IRIN the three siblings ate "sometimes once a day, but sometimes we go the whole day without eating anything".
Although the family has a field for cropping, Masauko admitted that he knew very little about farming. "My best hope is to collect wood [for sale]," he said. "We don't have any animals."
As a result of the interview with IRIN, both Sheku and Mwalubunju intervened with the school on the sisters' behalf. The head teacher promised they would not be turned away if they came to school without uniforms, and would be guaranteed at least one meal, five days a week.